20 June 2010


David Waldron. The Sign of the Witch: Modernity and the Pagan Revival. Carolina Academic Press, 2008

This interesting, if at times academically opaque study, traces the developments in the understanding and social imagery of 'the witch' and witchcraft from 17th century onwards, charting the decline in the intellectual respectability of the idea of witchcraft, the rise of notions of witchcraft beliefs being primitive survivals from a barbaric past, through to the rise of romantic interest in the subject. 🔻

Through the 19th century folklorists began to develop ideas, inspired by Darwin and the new geology that the beliefs of the rural masses represented 'prehistoric survivals' or intellectual 'living fossils'. Romantics used these ideas to speculate on the pagan origins of many local customs (which in reality were rarely likely to be more than 300 years old), and thus writers like Jules Michelet, Charles Leland and Margaret Murray conceived the notion of witchcraft as a surviving prehistoric cult.

It was perhaps inevitable that in reaction against the repressive Victorian and post-Victorian morality and the often drab urban landscape all sorts of groups grew up urging ideologies of returning to nature and back to the land. Gerald Gardener's Wicca was very much in this tradition, though Gardener posed as an anthropologist studying an existing cult, rather than the creator of a new religion.

By the mid 1960s academic historians such as Hugh Trevor-Roper and Norman Cohn discounted Margaret Murray's thesis of an actual witch cult based on a pagan survival, but they substituted a view which saw the witchcraft persecutions as precursors of the great state persecutions of the twentieth century. Against this totalitarian darkness stood the enlightenment forces of liberal democracy and daylight reason and commonsense. The ideas which had defeated witch beliefs could be marshalled to defeat the new menaces.

'Feminist witches' were able to use several of these themes, to construct the idea of either a female led witchcraft cult, or women folk healers, or proto-feminists, or just women in general being persecuted by the forces of state/church patriarchy in the 'Burning Times'. If writers like Norman Cohn had seen the witchcraft persecutions as part of the tradition of the demonisation of the 'other' which would find its ultimate expression in the Shoa, many feminists took this ancestry much more literally, and constructed the 'myth of the nine million'.

As historians began to challenge the myths of the pagan survival, the burning times and the nine million, and to argue that the neo-pagan religions were modern inventions, some neo-pagans took this on board but others retreated into post-modernist arguments about "my history" and so. Waldron effectively argues that much post-modernism is in fact simply repackaged romanticism. Equally mythical though is the idea that witchcraft beliefs and witchcraft persecutions were the product of 'medieval superstition'. They had been endorsed by almost all the leading intellectuals of the 16th and early to mid 17th century, yet within the space of perhaps two generations, as far as educated opinion was concerned, no-one could understand how anyone could ever have believed in such ideas.

The decline cannot be something as simple as the retreat before mechanical philosophy and enlightenment ideas, because changes must already have taken place in society and the intellectual climate to create the space in which new ideas could develop, and to some extent the decline in witchcraft prosecutions in Britain precedes the full development of the new philosophy. A more plausible explanation may be simple exhaustion. The new idea of polite society and the reaction against 'enthusiasm' and 'fanaticism', and against the genocidal religious wars of the preceding two centuries. -- Peter Rogerson

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